A YEAR ago this weekend, Myanmar’s army launched a murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya minority. Massacres, mass rapes and the torching of scores of villages drove more than 700,000 people across the border to Bangladesh, where most now live in miserable and precarious refugee camps. The outside world is only beginning to grapple with the legacy of those crimes. Last week, after a prolonged delay, the Trump administration finally imposed sanctions on four military and police commanders and two army units involved in the campaign, while the State Department is soon expected to issue a report. So far, it has declined to state the obvious: that the assaults on the Rohingya qualify as crimes against humanity, and should be addressed as such.
Like most other Western governments, the United States has played down its reaction to the Rohingya atrocities in the hope of maintaining working relations with the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who led the struggle to return Myanmar — also known as Burma — to democracy. But Aung San Suu Kyi continues to defend the ethnic cleansing as a response to terrorism. In an appearance in Singapore on Tuesday, she again avoided using the term “Rohingya,” which is rejected by Buddhist nationalists, while remarking that the three generals in her cabinet were “all rather sweet.”
It’s time that Aung San Suu Kyi did something to show her dwindling supporters in the administration and Congress that it still makes sense to treat her government differently from others guilty of mass atrocities, such as Syria and North Korea. As it happens, she has an important opportunity in the coming days, as the trial of two journalists unjustly prosecuted for reporting on Rohingya victims comes to a close. A judge in Yangon has said he will announce a verdict next Monday in the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters who were arrested last year and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. If found guilty, they each could be sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The two journalists were singled out when they investigated a massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in a village called Inn Din, in Rakhine state. Reuters later published the chilling results of their investigation, and Burmese authorities admitted the killings had taken place. But Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were by then already in jail. They were detained after being invited to a meeting with police officials, who handed them some documents and then arrested them for possessing them.
Human rights and media advocacy groups around the world have condemned the prosecution and called for the journalists’ release, as has the Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the case when he met with Myanmar’s foreign minister in Singapore this month. On the merits, the journalists should be acquitted; if the judge rules otherwise, Aung San Suu Kyi has the power to order them freed through a presidential pardon. That makes this case a test of whether Myanmar is still committed to democratic principles — and whether it still deserves the support of democratic countries.